On a night when players from both sides wanted to make a statement by showing solidarity to take a stand against social injustice and racism, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Soccer Club also reaffirmed its standing as a USL Cup contender by pushing aside its next closest competitor in Group F, Hartford Athletic, in a commanding 3-0 victory.
It was the Hounds’ most complete effort to date this season. And they did it for the most part, without its leader and captain, Kenardo Forbes, who came off in the 6th minute with an undisclosed leg injury.
Forbes was so frustrated walking off the field, he flung his captain’s armband to the ground.
Ryan James was there to pick it up, both literally and figuratively. Wearing the captain’s armband the rest of the match, James scored two of the Hounds three goals. In his homecoming, Connecticut native Danny Griffin also scored.
It was a match-up between two teams tied for the top spot in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference and the first of three contests between the Hounds and Hartford Athletic. By the end of the evening though, Pittsburgh (6-3-1, 19 points) got a huge leg up as they climbed into solid position in the lone match between the teams in Hartford this season.
TAKING A STAND AGAINST RACISM
Seven minutes into the match, even as competitive spirits were flowing as Hounds goalkeeper Tomas Gomez fouled the speedy Alex Dixon just outside the box, players from both teams walked toward the center circle in unity, where they took one minute and forty six seconds to take a stand against racism.
It was a powerful moment, reflective of events that have been happening in the past week and in recent months.
As they took to the center circle, you could also hear fans in the background during the broadcast applauding.
“It just shows two teams coming together in solidarity and just showing that we support what’s going on across the country right now,” Dixon said.
Dixon is a former teammate of numerous current Riverhounds and played for Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley when he was a member of the Rochester Rhinos. Dixon told the Hartford Journal-Inquirer that stopping at 7:00 was chosen to symbolize the seven times Blake was shot, and resuming at 8:46 represented the 8:46 an officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck when Floyd was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minn.
“There’s things that are bigger than soccer and all sports across the world, and we just wanted to shed a little light on that and do our part.”
While none of the Riverhounds players were available for comment after the match, on Wednesday, Hounds defender/midfielder Dakota Barnathan said something that was reflective of his team’s collective mindset in dealing with everything that’s been happening since the pandemic and social unrest began.
“It’s a good group of guys that are always together,” Barnathan said. “We’re always there for each other.”
Lilley said that he and the Hounds organization has been supportive of the players and reiterated his team’s unity.
“We’re comfortable with that as an organization, that if players feel a certain way, and they want to stand or kneel, that’s up to them,” Lilley said after the Hounds first home match vs Indy Eleven, when asked about most players taking a knee during the anthem. “We have a close group. For me, I respect all of our guys to — and they’ve had the talks. We’ve let them have their talks and they’re comfortable.”
While MLS, NBA, MLB, WNBA among others postponed matches this week, many USL players wanted to do something to show their unity on the matter. On Friday night, both matches on the USL Championship schedule were played, but included the planned in-game protests. (San Antonio and RVG Toros did the same as Hartford-Pittsburgh)
However, at least one USL Championship match has been postponed, as Memphis 901 will not play their scheduled match against North Carolina FC on Saturday.
In a statement, the players said they collectively decided instead to visit the National Civil Rights Museum.
“Due to the suffering and injustices that we continue to see taking place in this country, we felt that this weekend would be best served as a time for reflection and education rather than for sport,” the players said. “With this being the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, we are reminded of those who came before us and forged a path towards racial equality. We strive to continue their work through our united voice.”
In USL League One, Forward Madison FC choose to postpone its match on Sunday against North Texas SC.
Some things are more important than soccer.
— Forward Madison FC (@ForwardMSNFC) August 27, 2020
Indeed, there are some things that are just more important than soccer matches, and Dixon may have said it best.
“To me personally, it means a lot because as a black man, I’ve dealt with stuff my entire life in situations like that,” Dixon said of the protest. “Nothing to the extremes of having a gun pulled on me or anything like that. But I’ve been in certain situations to where I have had to be fearful of what’s going to happen next. So, I think it’s very significant what’s going on and shedding a light on the situation we’ve all been dealing with. The more people that get on it, the better.”
Considering how difficult it would be for USL players and teams to postpone matches in the current set-up of having a season during the pandemic, with travel restrictions and a frantic schedule, this show of unity has, if anything, raised awareness for these ongoing injustices that are taking place.
They certainly got my attention and support.
AFTER SHAKY EARLY MOMENTS, HOUNDS TAKE COMMAND
On the field, the Hounds came out initially in a 5-4-1, with Steevan Dos Santos as the lone striker, with a four midfielders (Robbie Mertz, Kenardo Forbes, Anthony Velarde and Danny Griffin) in central and attacking positions. Ryan James and Jordan Dover were in their usual wing spots, with a central back line of Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Skylar Thomas and Ray Lee.
After a shaky start, that included Forbes having to come out and Gomez’s early foul and yellow card, Pittsburgh put the hammer down and did what they do best when they’ve been at a high level this season: convert its opportunities and dictate the terms of the match.
First, the club boasting the league’s best shot conversion rate(*) executed a fabulous build-up of one-two touch passes in a quick transition up the field that led to the first goal.
(*31% going into the match — next highest team in USL Championship is Austin with 26%)
Then, before Hartford could recover, Danny Griffin’s goal put the Hounds in command of the contest.
James’ second goal of the match was his second full volley shot that ripped into the back of the net this season. Going into the season, James only scored one goal in his career. He now has three for the season.
James was the recipient of Pittsburgh’s effectiveness in building up play from the right side that kept drawing Hartford’s defenders over, and left the back door on the left side open.
Going into the match, on the Riverhounds Roundtable on Pittsburgh Sports Live about the Hounds midseason, I pondered about how much the Hounds were playing through the right side of the field.
On Friday, on both of James’ goals, they quickly switched the field effectively. In this game, the Hounds played the ball from side-to-side very well, maybe the best they’ve done so since the opening game when they blitzed Louisville City FC on the road with 3-1 win
The first tally included numerous players getting touches, including Dover, Mensah, Mertz, then Velarde at the top of the box, who turned and found James on the left side with all kinds of space to shoot.
Coming into this match, in his previous starts as an attacking midfielder, Danny Griffin was limited in getting touches and passes (only 22 passes on Saturday vs Saint Louis in 90 minutes).
In his return to his Nutmeg State home, Griffin played his best match of the season. In Forbes’ absence, Griffin and Mertz shared the load equally (58 passes each and both nearly had 90% passing accuracy).
What they also did was put the ball on the reliable feet of James and Dover early and often. The wing backs combined for a ton of passes (119), but only three total crosses. The Hounds were so effective with its passing (85% overall) that they didn’t need to rely on playing direct or sending in longer balls.
From my perspective, the extra midfielder, even when it was Dos Santos dropping into a more deeper role than usual, must have thrown off Hartford, who lined up in a 3-5-2, but kept getting picked apart by the Hounds for the most part of the first 55 minutes, especially in those transition moments.
Two of the three goals also came after free kicks, as Hartford failed to clear the ball, Griffin’s shot from the top of the box through traffic was his second goal in that manner this season, as he scored a similar goal against Philly Union II.
The Hounds back line started to absorb some more pressure, and Hartford was the more aggressive side throughout the second half. But the back line was only forced into 10 total duels in the match. 10! They won eight of them.
The Athletic would ultimately tilt the possession, shots and corners edge for the match in its favor. With an experienced trio in the back and Gomez in front of them, Pittsburgh showed no signs of panic, and handled each moment well, and had solid support from the wingers and midfielders who handled most of Hartford’s pressure. Limited most of their chances to the width and direct play attempts.
It was Pittsburgh’s fourth clean sheet of the season (Gomez has three of them). The Hounds have only surrendered eight goals. With three more goals, the Hounds now boast a goal differential of plus 25.
With a three point edge in the race to the top spot in Group F, even with Hartford holding two games at hand, Pittsburgh appears to be in control of things to win the group.
This may have been their best performance of the season, but I am sure Lilley and his players know they have to build on this.
Hopefully for their sake, Forbes’ injury isn’t too bad, and they can afford to give him time to heal up. There’s no need to bring him back too soon if he’s dealing with, say a nagging hamstring. Friday night’s collective effort was an important building block in this team’s progression.
The best just might be left to come.
Riverhounds SC Player Grades
|Player / Position||Grade||Comments||Key Stats|
|Tomas Gomez||7||Was busy early. Yellow card was the correct call when he took out Dixon outside box.||CLEAN SHEET Three saves,two punches, three clearances and yellow card|
|Thomas Vancaeyezeele||7.5||Another clean sheet. Looked in control in the back all night. He’s an All-USL player in my book.||90% passing,|
|Skylar Thomas||7||Not tons of pressure but solid as usual in the back. Could be also making a case for All-USL team selection if this keeps up.||Five tackles won all five duels), three clearances, 1 int|
|Ray Lee||6.5||Against former team, created one chance by drawing foul that led to Griffin goal.||3 tackles, team high 19 of 60 passes were longer, 78% passing accuracy, won 2 of 3 duels|
|Jordan Dover||9.5||Carried the load of touches/passes (team season high 104 touches/75 passes) Worked really well in getting forward in transition with Mensah to create first goal. That chip over to James for the third goals was brilliant.||ASSIST, Created two chances, 70 of his passes were short, won 7 of 9 duels!|
|Ryan James||8||Not one, but two goals! With Hartford completely undressed, James had all kinds of room to shoot but nice shot nonetheless on first, and the second, well his full volley left footed bombs are now a thing!||2 GOALS, One chance created, 89% passing accuracy (49 of 58 passes were short) 3 tackles, 2 clearances & 2 int’s|
|Kenardo Forbes||N/R||Injured in early going. Concerning for Hounds fans. It looked like he knew right away something was wrong||Made one pass|
|Robbie Mertz||7.5||Solid, steady. Played well with Velarde/Griffin/Mensah etc. lots of good decisions in making the extra pass and defended well positionally all night||89% passing, won three fouls won 5 of 11 duels|
|Anthony Velarde||7||Terrific pass to set up the first goal. Lilley must know something — Velarde in matches at Hartford has goal and two assists in two games.||ASSIST, 89% passing, created two chances, 28 total passes|
|Danny Griffin||8.5||Definitely motivated coming back to his home state — and was on front foot throughout.||GOAL,90% passing, 58 total passes (55 were short), won two fouls,won 2 of 5 duels|
|Steevan Dos Santos||6.5||Been interesting to see Dos Santos, in the absence of Forbes, be the veteran calming force in the central midfield for large portions of this match, along with Griffin, Mertz and Velarde||Created one chances, 92% passing accuracy, won 5 of 11 duels (low for him as Hounds played less through him)|
|Ropapa Mensah *||6.5||Came in the 5th minute for Forbes — so essentially a like a start. He was creative and active in the attack. Had lowest passing accuracy, but that’s because he took more chances and did some bold things sometimes. Another good match for the young forward.||62% passing accuracy, won 5 of 13 duels, one shot on target, won two fouls|
|Patrick Bunk-Andersen||81’||Made debut|
|Players not used||Pos|